96th World Congress of Esperanto in Copenhagen, Denmark

I spent five days this week (from Sunday to Thursday) in Copenhagen to participate in the 96th World Congress of Esperanto and give three talks there on the "revival" of Hebrew without myths, the genealogical affiliation of the "revived" Hebrew, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language in comparison with other language academies. This was my second time to take part in this unique annual gathering of people from many countries. Like many other experiences in life, it was far less enlightening, enriching and enjoyable than my first experience in Bialystok, Poland two years ago. I am especially sorry that I had absolutely no chance to speak with any local Esperantist.

Before this trip I became quite enthusiastic again with Esperanto as a living language. Unfortunately, however, I returned home with less enthusiasm with the community of its speakers scattered all over the world, if not with the language itself, as I have realized some fundamental extralinguistic problem with the interpersonal communication in Esperanto. It is true that Esperanto is an easy-to-learn and neutral language which is more appropriate than any ethnic language as a means of intercultural communication. But having a common language is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful interpersonal communication, if we are to go beyond shallow talks. Sharing a common culture or cultural assumptions is far more important for this purpose, even in purely academic communication.

By its very nature, however, the worldwide community of speakers of Esperanto is not supposed to share a common culture beyond a very superficial level. Actually, many people can have a dangerous illusion that they are speaking the same "language", while in reality they may mean different things by the same words and expressions. Conversational strategies are also significantly different from culture to culture. But few speakers of Esperanto seem to be aware exactly what pragmatic strategies their interlocutors are using.

The way I gave my talks must have been a kind of culture shock for quite a few participants from certain countries which use pragmatic strategies totally different from mine, which must be largely Jewish and barely Japanese; I ask rhetorical questions, make cynical remarks and tell spontaneous jokes all the time both in lectures and in personal conversations. Of course, I am not claiming that these Jewish conversational strategies are better than the others. But the fact remains that for someone like myself who is used to them it is often difficult, unenjoyable and even frustrating to speak with someone else whose strategies are significantly different, for example, a typical native speaker of Japanese; of course, this communicative "dissonance" must be reciprocal.

After this experience I have also started asking a very fundamental (and dangerous) question, i.e., why I have to remain a member of this international speech community, while I am interested mainly in traditional Jewish culture and Jewish Jews. Of course, there are always exceptional people in every culture, with whom I feel I share the same "language", including some patient regular readers of this blog. But generally speaking, I do not feel any pressing need to communicate with members of other cultures, whether in Esperanto or in any other language. In spite of all this, I will definitely continue to participate in the World Congress of Esperanto, if not every year, mainly in order to try to expose as many participants, including Jewish Esperantists, as possible to those aspects of traditional Jewish culture I love through this language, as I have seen that even Esperantists are not free from preconceptions and misunderstandings about the Jewish people, and no other Jewish Esperantist I know seems to be knowledgeable enough about traditional Jewish culture.